Victorio was an Apache chief who led many of his people in
an 1879 breakout from a New Mexico reservation where disease
and short rations were killing many Apaches. Before coming
into the reservation, Victorio had been promised that his
surrender to the American Army would be followed by his
people being allowed to have a reservation near their homeland
at Camp Ojo Caliente.
Their retreat across the mountains and deserts of west Texas
was a model of ingenuity, where relatively small numbers of
warriors carried out delaying actions to protect their families
from advancing American soldiers. The U.S. military pursuit was
led by Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a senior officer whose small
group of soldiers barely survived Victorio's onslaught at the Battle of Devil's Ridge.
However, it took the Mexican army to defeat Chief Victorio at the Battle of Tres Castillos, where Lieutenant
Colonel Jaquin Terrazas and his Chihuahua militia forces cornered the fleeing Apache Band.
Across Sonora in old Mexico to west Texas and across southern New Mexico, few names were as dreaded during the late 1870s as that of Victorio, the Mimbres (Warm Springs) Apache war chief. Considered by some to have been the most effective of all Apache war leaders, Victorio consistently outmaneuvered and outfought the military forces sent to oppose him from both sides of the border, despite the fact that he usually had women and children in his band. Like many other great captains in history, he possessed a natural instinct for the kind of swift hawk-like thrust that made him feared and hated by all who sought to destroy him. One American Army officer thought him the "greatest Indian general who ever appeared on the continent."
In physique, Victorio was a typical Apache, though perhaps burlier than most. Indian inspector John Kimball described him as being " short and stout with a heavy, firm-set lower jaw, and an eye [of a] politician. He was dressed in a grimy calico shirt and coarse trousers, and was without paint, feathers, or ornament of any kind."
Victorio is thought to have been born in the Black Range area of southwestern New Mexico, probably about 1825. It has been suggested that he was a Mexican captured by the Apaches as a small boy The late Dan Thrapp, author of Victorio and the Mimbres Apaches, believed Victorio was a full-blooded Apache but admitted that it was impossible to be certain.
Little is known of Victorio's childhood, but by the 1850s he was beginning to emerge as a warrior of promise, honing his skills on numerous raids into Mexico. In those days, Apache war parties swept across the border regularly, to raid and plunder or to seek vengeance for atrocities inflicted on them by Mexicans.
It was an unforgiving time, with brutality rampant on both sides. Gold was discovered in southwestern New Mexico in 1860. This brought an invasion of White gold hunters who hunted the Apaches scant game, set up whiskey stills and totally disrupting the Indian way of life. The Apaches began attacking gold prospectors and raiding the ranchers livestock.
In December 1860, a party of miners attacked some peaceful Apaches on the Mimbres River in retaliation for a mule thought to have been stolen by Apaches. Later, the Army confiscated Apache stock to pay for what had been stolen from the miners. The incident angered Victorio and set him on the warpath.
When the Civil War erupted and drew most of the regular Army troops east, Victorio, like the other Apache leaders, took advantage of the situation to raid across the territory. It is likely that he was with Mangas Coloradas and Cochise at the Battle of Apache Pass in 1862.
After Mangas' death in 1863, Victorio gradually rose to prominence as the premier war chief among the Eastern Chiricahua. Assembling a select group of warriors from both his own Warm Springs band and the Mescaleros, Victorio spent the next two years raiding through the Rio Grande Valley and down into Mexico.
By 1865, Victorio had grown weary of fighting and expressed a willingness to abandon his raiding ways and settle down, provided his people were given a suitable place to live. It was a situation that was to be repeated time and again. By 1870 the government had responded by establishing a reservation at Ojo Caliente that satisfied the Apaches. There they remained for some time in a more or less peaceable and contented state.
In 1877, in an effort to gain better control over the Apaches, the government decided that all bands should be concentrated on the San Carlos Reservation in eastern Arizona. The decision reflected poor or little understanding of the Apache culture. For one thing, the San Carlos area was hot, barren and unhealthy.
Moreover, not all Apache bands were friendly with one another, and merging them led to problems. Victorio reluctantly agreed to move, but then, in company with Loco, another prominent war leader, bolted from the reservation in early September.
The Apaches moved east, through the mountainous country of eastern Arizona, into New Mexico, raiding as they found opportunity. San Carlos police and a contingent of Apache scouts pursued them, but the raiders managed to stay just out of reach. By the end of the month, however, most had wearied of the business and surrendered at Fort Wingate, in northwestern New Mexico, asking only that they be allowed to return to Ojo Caliente, a request Colonel Edward Hatch, commanding the District of New Mexico, acceded to, provided the Apaches behaved themselves.
Victorio, however, was not yet ready to acquiesce. With a small band of followers he swept down into Mexico to resume raiding and terrorizing south of the border.
In February 1878, Victorio recrossed the border and turned himself in to authorities at Ojo Caliente, where he was allowed to remain while the Army and the Interior Department wrestled with the decision of where to put the Apaches.
For a time, some consideration was given to sending them to Fort Sill, Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). In October, however, it was finally decided to send them back to San Carlos. Once again Victorio struck south, this time with about 80 warriors, while the rest of the Warm Springs band under Loco trudged back to the hated San Carlos.
The scenario was a repeat of the previous year. After a winter spent slipping back and forth between Chihuahua and New Mexico,Victorio returned in February 1879, requesting that he and his warriors be allowed to stay at Ojo Caliente. But he was amenable to almost anyplace except San Carlos. After considering the matter, the government in its wisdom, again chose the Mescalero Reservation.
At first Victorio balked, but he later consented, as long as his warriors' families could rejoin them from San Carlos. The government agreed.
In September 1879, word reached Victorio that authorities in Silver City New Mexico Territory had charged him with murder and horse stealing. Certain they would be coming after him, Victorio gathered his band together and once more headed into the mountains, where, in the months ahead, he would be joined by other discontented Mescalero and Chiricahua raiders. For Victorio, there would be no return. This time he had crossed his Rubicon.
With the news that Victorio was again on the loose, the Army spread a network of patrols across southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. Victorio cunningly avoided those areas, but the patrols skill found him. When columns of troops tried to penetrate his stronghold in the Mimbres Mountains west of present-day Truth and Consequences, N.M., he struck savagely.
In September 1879, Victorio and some 150 warriors ambushed a patrol of Colonel Hatch's 9th Cavalry, including a contingent of Navajo scouts. The fight was a tough, daylong affair, with the troops losing eight killed and two wounded, as well as a number of horses and mules, before they were able to extricate themselves.
The action foreshadowed what the fall held in store, as Victorio demonstrated his innate skills as a guerrilla leader time and again. In November, a Mexican force of 50 frontiersmen was ambushed in the Candeleria Mountains and nearly wiped out. Their casualties amounted to 32 killed and 18 wounded. Up and down the southern Rio Grande valley and across the border Victorio and his band rode, appearing suddenly to raid and burn before disappearing into the tawny distance from which they had emerged. On both sides of the border, military units seemed helpless.
In Arizona, General Orlando Willcox had his units covering the southeastern sector of that territory, while Hatch ordered all units of the 9th Cavalry to southern New Mexico, but Victorio continued to prove elusive. On those rare occasions when they managed to find him, they usually had ample cause to regret having done so.
Early in 1880, Victorio again came north across the border. Troop detachments from both Arizona and New Mexico pursued with a vigor that did produce several engagements with the Apaches but resulted in little more than a few casualties and considerable frustration.
In late March 1880, Hatch launched a carefully laid campaign for which he entertained high hopes. With reports indicating that Victorio was holed-up in Hembrillo Canyon, in the San Andreas Mountains, Hatch moved east from Aleman with a strong column, while a second force moved down from Fort Stanton. Yet a third column under Brig. Gen. Benjamin Grierson would move in from west Texas to seal off escape in that direction.
The Fort Stanton column, commanded by Captain Henry Carroll, had the unenviable chore of moving across the dreaded malpais ("badlands") country. Carroll and his men found themselves barely able to function after drinking water heavily laden with gypsum. When the wretchedly ill troops suprised Victorio's camp, the Apaches quickly perceived that all was not well with the soldiers and promptly turned the tables, pinning down Carroll's force.
Fortunately, part of Hatch's command arrived to relieve the suffering and beleaguered soldiers. The rescue, however, allowed Victorio to escape, though he narrowly missed Hatch's main column in doing so.
The constant strain of pursuit was beginning to wear down even the indefatigable Apaches. The Mescalero reservation had been a source of supplies for Victorio--weapons, ammunition. horses and other necessities. Recognizing that, the Army sealed off the corridor, reducing the Apaches to replacing their inventories from what could be reaped from their raids on ranches.
In May 1880, a detachment of Apache scouts under a hard-bitten chief of scouts, H.K. Parker, succeeded in surprising Victorio's camp in Palomas Canyon. north of present-day Hillsboro, N.M. Parker's command was not strong enough to overpower the Apaches; he rushed a courier off to Hatch, requesting support, but was finally compelled to withdraw when none was forthcoming.
Why Hatch did not respond with alacrity is unclear, but he suffered severe criticism at the hands of the local press. Nevertheless, the fight had been costly for the Apaches, who lost a number of warriors. Victorio himself was reportedly wounded in the leg. As always, though, once the smoke of battle had dissipated, the Apaches had vanished.
The Army continued its dogged pursuit. Detachments of troops were placed at all known water holes, but Victorio's skill at avoiding these traps remained uncannily sharp. Sometimes, though, even a cagey warrior such as Victorio discovered that things were not always what they seemed. In August 1880, he attacked what appeared to be a fat and promising unprotected Army supply train at Rattlesnake Springs, Texas, only to be suddenly confronted by the train's escort, which had been riding inside. The soldiers promptly piled out to confront and drive off the Apaches.
In October 1880, U.S. and Mexican troops located Victorio's hideaway in the Tres Castillos Mountains of Mexico. Ordering the U.S. forces to leave, the Mexicans attacked the Apache stronghold, killing all but 17 of the band. Victorio was one of the dead men. The Apaches believed Victorio took his own life, while others said that a Tarahumara Indian scout working for the Mexicans killed the Apache leader.
Although the survivors of Tres Castillos insisted that Victorio had died in the fighting, rumors of his escape persisted. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Victorio's persona seemed too powerful to succumb to the fate of ordinary mortals.
But whether he perished at Tres Castillos or not, it may safely be said that Victorio left his imprint on the face of the Southwest. As biographer Thrapp suggested, he may well have been "America's greatest guerrilla fighter." Copyright 2012.
Chamberlain, Kathleen P.(2008). Victorio: Apache Warrior and Chief.
Dinges, B. J. (1987). Victorio Campaign of 1880: Cooperation and Conflict on the United States-mexican Border.
New Mexico Historical Review vol. 62.
Thrapp, Dan L. (1975). Victorio and the Mimbres Apaches.